Boston University tried to sell four apartment buildings in Los Angeles to a private firm, effectively displacing their current occupants. BU YDSA was able to use the power of their national organization to stop it.
This article was first published in the Spring 2023 print issue of The Activist, which can be found here.
During the 2022 holiday season, more than a hundred tenants in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles received terrible news. Frederick Pardee, the real estate investor and philanthropist who owned the four apartment buildings they lived in, had died last June and donated their homes to Boston University, who was planning to sell them.
By December, a local LA real estate broker had already shown the apartment buildings to multiple potential buyers. Most of the tenants in these buildings were paying an average of $1000–$1500 a month in an area where rent for a two bedroom could reach up to $6000 for a comparable unit in the nearby Cumulus development. If the buildings were bought out by a private firm, it was likely that all the current tenants would be displaced.
The tenants moved quickly, posting a set of Instagram infographics on December 22, 2022 explaining their situation. They called on members of the BU community to make calls and send emails to various BU administrators urging them to sell the buildings to tenants through the Liberty Community Land Trust, a nonprofit operating in South Central LA, instead of a private firm. Our YDSA chapter at Boston University learned about the impending sale and got involved in the fight to keep the apartment buildings.
Fortunately, the Corbett Tenants went viral on Twitter when a story about them in Knock LA was shared by Ruha Benjamin, a former professor at BU, and Davarian L. Baldwin, an academic studying the impact of universities on their local communities, in early January. Around the same time, BU YDSA launched a letter campaign that allowed supporters of the tenants to quickly email all of the key decision makers at BU on the sale of the four buildings.
We were also able to put together a coalition on BU’s campus who helped boost our letter campaign and organize on behalf of the tenants. This included our Graduate Workers’ Union, the College Democrats chapter, and a group of graduate students in the School of Public Health. I was also able to meet with a member of DSA LA in person over winter break and looped the chapter into the campaign.
Through organizing with the Corbett Tenants and meeting with DSA LA, I witnessed firsthand how DSA is uniquely positioned to take on struggles like this, where the parties affected are spread across the country. Because DSA is a nationwide organization, I was able to take advantage of BU YDSA’s connection to DSA LA during my time there, even though I had never personally met anyone from the chapter before January. Together with DSA LA, we were able to mobilize even more people to call and send emails on behalf of the tenants.
Through our collective effort, we sent almost 1,000 emails in less than two weeks through BU YDSA’s letter campaign, and undoubtedly many more were sent by those coming from either the Corbett Tenants’ Instagram post or Benjamin’s and Baldwin’s tweets. Local LA public officials also spoke out in support of the tenants, including Mayor Karen Bass and Councilwoman Heather Hutt.
As a result of our organizing, BU agreed to sell three out of the four buildings they inherited to the Liberty Community Land Trust, but not the last one. This was probably due to the building being promised to another buyer, though BU did not comment on their reasoning in this decision. While this was a step in the right direction, it was still an unacceptable result for the tenants and their supporters. Selling the building to a private firm would result in the displacement of almost 40 people, which included “elders, children, disabled folks, and working class families,” as the tenants said in their statement on Instagram.
In response, the tenants held a press conference on January 9th calling on BU to sell all four buildings to the Community Land Trust. Multiple tenants and neighbors spoke out about topics ranging from how long they had lived in the building, their families’ previous experiences with displacement, the LA housing crisis, and the sense of community they felt living together. Jose Lopez, one of the leaders of the Corbett Tenants, left BU’s President Brown a voicemail during the press conference calling on him to sell the buildings to the tenants. Other organizations, such as the Liberty Community Land Trust, LA Tenants Union, and BU YDSA, expressed their solidarity with the tenants in their fight to buy the last building.
The next day, we received amazing news: the unknown buyer of the last building had backed out of the sale, which meant that the Liberty Community Land Trust would be able to buy all four buildings from BU on behalf of the tenants. Across the country, people in LA and Boston celebrated the fact that BU had listened to the tenants and done, as the tenants said, “what’s right.”
We will probably never know what exactly pushed the buyer to back out or BU to sell to the land trust. But regardless, I’m sure that our organizing with comrades on opposite sides of the country played no small part in the tenants staying in their homes. In this fight, we also brought attention to one of the worst housing crises in the US. Ten days after the Corbett Tenants won their fight, LA passed a tenant protection package including just cause eviction protections, relocation assistance, and more.
As a student, the Corbett Tenants’ struggle put my chapter face to face with the reality that BU pushes gentrification, forced displacement, and so many other odious things both locally in Boston and around the country. The problem of universities taking over neighborhoods and displacing residents is not unique to BU, as Davarian L. Baldwin describes. As student socialists, it is imperative for us to look outside of our campus bubbles. We absolutely need to form strong relationships with our local DSA chapters, community organizations, and labor and tenant unions.
Any student organization can adopt a pet issue, advocate for passing or voting down a certain piece of legislation, or launch a student services campaign on their campus. What sets YDSA apart is our socialist principles and connections to a national network of DSA and YDSA chapters. Our goal should not be to advocate only for ourselves as students, creating, as a previous generation of student activists said, “a ghetto of gold in a world of shit.” YDSA can do more than that.
When universities invoke our education to justify their profit seeking, callous decisions, we have a duty to stand in solidarity with those impacted. By leveraging our connections within DSA and operating in partnership with the very communities our schools want to displace, we can build a better world not just for students, but for the whole working class.